The Pastor Who Clashed With Palin: She Wanted to Ban His Book

Baptist minister Howard Bess, who wrote a book Palin wanted banned and who fought her on abortion and gay rights, says the country should fear her election.

September 15, 2008

Salon.com

By David Talbot

: News

Inset: Howard Bess

 Sept. 15, 2008 | WASILLA, Alaska — The Wasilla Assembly of God, the evangelical church where Sarah Palin came of age, was still charged with excitement on Sunday over Palin’s sudden ascendance. Pastor Ed Kalnins warned his congregation not to talk with any journalists who might have been lurking in the pews — and directly warned this reporter not to interview any of his flock. But Kalnins and other speakers at the service reveled in Palin’s rise to global stardom.

It confirmed, they said, that God was making use of Wasilla. “She will take our message to the world!” rejoiced an Assembly of God youth ministry leader, as the church band rocked the high-vaulted wooden building with its electric gospel.

That is what scares the Rev. Howard Bess. A retired American Baptist minister who pastors a small congregation in nearby Palmer, Wasilla’s twin town in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley, Bess has been tangling with Palin and her fellow evangelical activists ever since she was a Wasilla City Council member in the 1990s. Recently, Bess again found himself in the spotlight with Palin, when it was reported that his 1995 book, “Pastor, I Am Gay,” was among those Palin tried to have removed from the Wasilla Public Library when she was mayor.

“She scares me,” said Bess. “She’s Jerry Falwell with a pretty face.

“At this point, people in this country don’t grasp what this person is all about. The key to understanding Sarah Palin is understanding her radical theology.”

Bess — a fit-looking, 80-year-old man in a gray University of Illinois sweatshirt and blue jeans – spoke with me over coffee at the Vagabond Blues, a cafe in Palmer with a stunning view of the nearby snow-capped Chugach Mountains. The retired minister moved to the Mat-Su Valley with his wife, Darlene, in 1987, after his outspoken defense of gay rights at Baptist churches in the Santa Barbara, Calif., area and Anchorage landed him in trouble with church officials. In the Mat-Su Valley, Bess plunged into community activism, helping launch an assortment of projects, from an arts council to a shelter for the mentally disabled.

Inevitably, his work brought him into conflict with Palin and other highly politicized Christian fundamentalists in the valley. “Things got very intense around here in the ’90s — the culture war was very hot here,” Bess said. “The evangelicals were trying to take over the valley. They took over the school board, the community hospital board, even the local electric utility. And Sarah Palin was in the direct center of all these culture battles, along with the churches she belonged to.”

QuantcastBess’ first run-in with Palin’s religious forces came when he decided to write his book, “Pastor, I Am Gay.” The book was the result of a theological journey that began in the 1970s when Bess was asked for guidance by a closeted homosexual in his Santa Barbara congregation. After deep reflection on the subject, Bess came to the conclusion that “gay people were not sick, nor they were special sinners.”

In his book, Bess suggests that gays have a divine mission. “Look back at the life of our Lord Jesus. He was misunderstood, deserted, unjustly accused, and cruelly killed. Yet we all confess that it was the will of God, for by his wounds we are healed … Could it be that the homosexual, obedient to the will of God, might be the church’s modern day healer-messiah?”

When it was published in 1995, Bess’ book caused an immediate storm in the Mat-Su Valley, an evangelical stronghold dotted with storefront churches. Conservative ministers targeted the book, and the only bookstore in the valley that dared to stock it — Shalom Christian Books and Gifts – soon dropped it after the owner was barraged with angry phone calls. The Frontiersman, the local newspaper that ran a column by Bess for seven years, fired him and ran a vicious cartoon that suggested even drooling child molesters would be welcomed by Bess’ church.

And after she became mayor of Wasilla, according to Bess, Sarah Palin tried to get rid of his book from the local library. Palin now denies that she wanted to censor library books, but Bess insists that his book was on a “hit list” targeted by Palin. “I’m as certain of that as I am that I’m sitting here. This is a small town, we all know each other. People in city government have confirmed to me what Sarah was trying to do.”

Republican campaign downplays Palin book-banning inquiry


Of course they are playing it down. They don’t want us to know that she, who doesn’t appear to read much of anything, wants to decide what the rest of us read. For a forty-something year old woman who has been out of the country one time — and that was an “official” visit she didn’t pay for to Iraq to purportedly visit the Alaska National Guardsmen who are fighting a war we shouldn’t be fighting –that person has no business putting her nose in the books anyone else wants to read. She is narrow minded, poorly educated (how could she be otherwise when she attended five colleges in five years), bullish, doctrinaire, rigid, and most of all, dishonest.

GOP campaign downplays Palin book-banning inquiry

By Garance Burke,
Associated Press Writer
September 12, 2008

WASILLA, Alaska –The McCain campaign is defending Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s much-criticized inquiry into banning books at her hometown library, saying her questions were only hypothetical.

Shortly after taking office in 1996 as mayor of Wasilla, a city of about 7,000 people, Palin asked the city’s head librarian about banning books. Later, the librarian was notified by Palin that she was being fired, although Palin backed off under pressure.

Palin’s alleged attempt at book-banning has been a matter of intense interest since Republican presidential nominee John McCain named her as his running mate last month.

Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said Thursday that Palin asked the head librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, on three occasions how she would react to attempts at banning books. He said the questions, in the fall of 1996, were hypothetical and entirely appropriate. He said a patron had asked the library to remove a title the year before and the mayor wanted to understand how such disputes were handled.

Records on the city’s Web site, however, do not show any books were challenged in Wasilla in the 10 years before Palin took office.

Palin notified Emmons she would be fired in January 1997 because the mayor didn ‘t feel she had the librarian’s “full support.” Emmons was reinstated the next day after public outcry, according to newspaper reports at the time.

Still, one longtime library staffer recalls that the run-in made everyone fear for their jobs.

“Mayor Palin gave us some terrible moments and some rather gut-wrenching moments, particularly when Mary Ellen said she was going to have to leave,” said Cathy Petrie, who managed the children’s collection at the time.

Recent outrage has been fueled by Wasilla housewife Anne Kilkenny, whose 2,400-word critique of Palin’s legacy as mayor is widely posted on the Internet. Kilkenny described Palin’s actions as “out-and-out censorship.”

But the McCain campaign, in a statement, said the charge “is categorically false … Governor Sarah Palin has never asked anyone to ban a book, period.”

Emmons, a former Alaska Library Association president who now goes by Mary Ellen Baker, did not return calls seeking comment.

According to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper, Emmons did not mince words when Palin asked her “how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library” on Oct. 28, 1996, in a week when the mayor had asked department heads for letters of resignation.

“She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied ‘Yup’,” Emmons told a reporter. “And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union20would get involved, too.”

The Rev. Howard Bess, a liberal Christian preacher in the nearby town of Palmer, said the church Palin and her family attended until 2002, the Wasilla Assembly of God, was pushing to remove his book from local bookstores.

Emmons told him that year that several copies of “Pastor I Am Gay” had disappeared from the library shelves, Bess said.

“Sarah brought pressure on the library about things she didn’t like,” Bess said. “To believe that my book was not targeted in this is a joke.”

Other locals said the dust-up had been blown out of proportion.

“That was many years ago and Sarah never had any intention to ban books,” said David Chappel, who served as Palin’s deputy mayor for three years. “There were some vocal people in the minority, and it looks like they’re still out there.”

Jim Rettig, a University of Richmond librarian who heads the Chicago-based American Library Association, suggested that lingering quarrel raises issues that are still relevant as librarians prepare to celebrate Banned Books Week later this month.

“Librarians are very committed to the principles of the First Amendment of the Constitution and that means we don’t allow one individual or a group of people to dictate what people can or cannot read,” he said. “Most librarians if they got that sort of a question would be curious as to what the intent of the questioner was.”

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